Last week I was at the Grace Hopper conference for women in computing, in Baltimore. The conference itself was a really good experience – it’s always good to talk with other women in the industry, and I particularly enjoyed the chance to talk to women who are just starting out their careers in tech.
One of my vectors of interest for a conference like this is, of course, personal – the conference has a strand of sessions centered around women in leadership positions, which is great for professional development. But my greater interest is in driving change in the industry, and trying to figure out what kind of changes would be most helpful, both locally and globally.
One theme that stood out to me was the importance of providing entry points for women into the industry and into tech in general. I went to a great session given by +Jessica McKellar of the Boston Python Users’ Group, which went into detail on how they managed to drive participation of women in the group from 0% to 15%, and the short answer is – focused, beginner-level instruction aimed specifically at women, followed by whole-group project nights in which the new beginners could interact with and learn from the more experienced members of the community.
Once the women had an entry point into coding in python and the tech community, a lot of them stuck around to become active members of the user group, and some went on to become experts. How exciting is that? I was particularly struck by her description of the demographics of the people they brought in – a lot of the women who took the classes were older, some looking for ways to re-enter the industry after time away, others just looking to understand a little about coding.
Something which stood out – from Jessica’s talk, from the questions that people asked in panel sessions, and also from talking to new grads on the conference floor – was that the tech industry’s emphasis on elitism and lack of focus on mentoring and training is really off-putting to a lot of women who might otherwise be interested. It’s not easy to get from beginner-level to community participant all on your own, nor is it easy to get from new grad to experienced professional without help. The narrative around computer science often describes it as an individual pursuit, done in all-night redbull-fuelled coding benders. We also focus a lot on self-taught and non-academic success stories, to the extent that a lot of people in the industry will solemnly proclaim a computer science degree to be useless.
That narrative could not be further from the truth, and it creates a self-selecting profile for people who enter and remain in the industry which is very narrowly defined. This does a disservice to anyone who doesn’t fit the profile – many women, as well as quite a few men. The truth is that you don’t have to have been coding since you were eight to be a good engineer (or successful in any other technical role), nor will all potential success stories possess the blinding self-confidence for which we tend to select. A lot of potentially very good engineers will need to be supported, trained and mentored into true excellence. This doesn’t end in school – it’s true at all levels of industry.
Another thing that stood out was that a lot of technical women have a broad array of interests, of which many others (UI or UX, other sciences, etc) may well lead them into segments of the industry in which they’re less isolated (who wants to be the only woman in the room? It’s an incredibly intimidating situation to be in). The loss of these potential generalists is a loss to us all. We need the perspective that these women could bring, particularly in the segments of the industry which need to interact with users in the real world.
(There is also a subtle overlap between these categories, which is women with non-standard career trajectories. Not all women in tech are computer scientists, and those who are sometimes come in from unusual backgrounds, partly because it’s flat-out hard to survive the isolation of low female representation in the mainstream part of the industry. People in these situations tend to suffer from the industry class system in which there are coders and engineers, and then there’s everyone else. This isn’t doing us any favors, either.)
The last theme is the sad one, which is that the industry, and tech fields in general, are often flat-out awful to women. There’s still a lot of shockingly direct discrimination, and the simple experience of the current sad state of the gender balance (85/15 is the general industry-wide stat; in some fields, including mine, it’s as low as 5% women) means that most women will experience being the only woman on their team, the only woman in the room, sometimes the only woman in their entire office or company, which leads to both isolation and dysfunction. While we can’t fix the isolation problem directly, we could be doing a much better job of stamping out the dysfunction – which starts with things like supporting female colleagues and employees, and directly calling out bad behavior as it comes up.
I guess the single biggest theme, if I was going to sum up the things we should probably try to change, is “Don’t be a dick.” (haha, yes, I’m funny.) If we did a better job of supporting and mentoring, and were nicer and each better able to recognize the value of contributions which don’t look exactly like our own, then attracting and retaining more women – and more people – wouldn’t be such a challenge.
(Actionable? Not terribly. However, the part about the importance of training programs is one which I will take home and try to do something about, and the part about supporting female colleagues and employees is one that I try to do every day.)